Free Music

Kevin MacLeod Composes for the Internet

Story: Niina Pollari • Photos: Tomasz Werner

Kevin MacLeod says he’s not very interesting. Sitting in his sparsely furnished apartment, he takes a moment to consider himself and trails off, his glasses catching the light from the window. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, and later, when we go outside, he’ll throw on a hoodie. At a glance, his assessment seems true — you might not find anything remarkable about him, and you probably wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd. But if you’re an internet-dweller or movie-watcher, chances are good that you’ve encountered his work somewhere recently.

MacLeod makes music and distributes it free of charge. He posts his compositions on the Royalty-Free Music section of his website, for anyone who wants to use them, for any project whatsoever. There’s both a generosity and a sense of humor in the presentation — you can view tracks by collection, see a list of everything ever posted, or even find out which 19 tracks are the least popular. (Currently, the unpopularity crown is held by an electro-acoustic rendition of “Coming Round the Mountain.”) Even the name of the site — Incompetech — is a good clue that MacLeod doesn’t agonize over imperfections. He just makes piece after piece and posts it all up for use. People can take what he makes, and use it to create their own things. He doesn’t ask for anything but a credit in return.

Kevin MacLeod, "Carefree"

Some people don’t credit him, but many do — and this is how we know that his compositions have been used basically everywhere. MacLeod’s work has been in feature films (like Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo) and student productions. It’s been in thousands of YouTube videos and hundreds of Kickstarter project videos. (I looked into this: he’s named in 275 individual projects, and that’s just the ones that give him credit.) Then there’s the handful of quirky uncategorizables: cat videos, videos on equestrian technique, dominatrix videos, and at least one religious podcast. It’s not just the U.S. either: his music was also used as the basis of a soundtrack for an entire go-kart-based theme park in Finland’s Southern Ostrobothnia region.

Nothing about MacLeod betrays any level of international name recognition. He looks sort of like anyone you might run into on the subway or street. When he gets talking, he’s friendly and forthcoming, but until then he doesn’t say a whole lot. Still, lots of people know him by name. Once, MacLeod was attending an event at YouTube's offices. “In the queue, I was talking to this one guy and asking him what kind of music he used in his projects.” The two got around to exchanging cards, and the guy recognized his name. “He goes, ‘Why do you have Kevin MacLeod’s name on your card?’ and I said, ‘Because I’m Kevin MacLeod.’”

After using MacLeod's music for film projects all throughout college, two young filmmakers, Ryan Camarda and Ari Greenberg, went looking for him. They’d searched for him on a whim after using his music for their most recent project, and then they discovered his IMDB page, which, at the time of this article, credits him as a composer on 1,782 different projects. Camarda and Greenberg decided MacLeod would make a good documentary subject. They met him in a Brooklyn bar, showed him some charts about the correlation between the rise of YouTube partnerships and the popularity of his royalty-free music site. “It was very weird, because they knew more about me than I did,” MacLeod says.

In the project video for the film, MacLeod himself seems oddly bemused about being a documentary star. At first the video seems scripted, but MacLeod breaks character a tiny bit at the end of his section, as he seems to acknowledges the weirdness of being in a film when you don’t really even care about being a personality. “A documentary about... me.” he says in a monotone as he looks down. “And I’m like, OK, sure. Me documentary.” The screen fades to black.

“A documentary about... me. And I'm like, OK, sure. Me documentary.”

Why does he do what he does? At least part of the reason is philosophical in nature. “I hate the current copyright system with a passion,” he says. “It was like, well, I don’t have enough money to get it changed in Congress, so I’ll start living on a parallel track and get as many people to come to the dark side as possible.” MacLeod is a big proponent of Creative Commons. Camarda and Greenberg, after working on their documentary for a while, tracked down Lawrence Lessig, who is a founding board member of Creative Commons, and told him about what Kevin MacLeod does. Lessig enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed for the documentary.

But it’s not all ethics: he also loves his craft, and is dedicated to it — making music is what he does, day-to-day. He works on projects for money: short films, cutaways to video games, and more, in his home studio, which consists of a keyboard, a computer, a huge, gorgeous computer screen with plenty of real estate, and speakers with some juice to them — that’s all. The rest of the room feels spare. MacLeod has moved back and forth from the Midwest a few times recently, so there’s not much ornamentation. However, a couple of things stick out. There’s a painting he’s done himself, in hues of bright green and yellow (“It’s a clear-your-head sort of hobby for me” he says. “I’ve not succeeded in becoming any good at all”). And then there are his many pairs of incredibly flashy shoes — orange patent loafers, a pair of impractical-looking boots — which he classifies under different mileage. “Sneakers have a longer walking life. These are like, seven miles no problem,” he says, holding up one pair. “I’ve got some twelve-mile shoes too.”

But his music setup is the centerpiece of the living room. It’s a really good home set-up, and he works on it doggedly. He wakes up, checks emergency emails, orders some food, and then hunkers down — “On deadline days, I work 12 to 16 hours. If not, I work 4 to 10.” Deadlines come up often.

He works fast, and at least on his Royalty-Free Music pieces, he doesn’t agonize about the mistakes. When I ask him if he listens to his own work critically, he pauses for a moment. “I’ve been happy with like ten things in my life, ever. I know what’s wrong — I knew what was wrong when I did it. I just didn’t have the 50 hours to fix it. It’s more like: what can I fix in another three hours? Can I fix all the major things and just get it out and do another thing?” In this way his view of flaws and blemishes is a practical one (not to mention a pretty freeing one): is it worth it to spend those fifty hours, or is the difference between good and perfect ultimately insignificant? “There’s problems with anything I’ve ever done,” he says.

He’s also into using samples with audible imperfections. He goes over to the computer and plays a clip. “When I was making this one, I had a bunch of musician folk over.” It starts with a piano riff climbing up and down. “Thirty seconds in is when the awesome hits. I got a really cool trumpet sample.” When it arrives, it’s a terrible trumpet player, playing with a lot of feeling over a piano figure — you can hear the effort, and also all the mistakes.

“I’ve always been a huge proponent of the sixth-grade band sound. There’s no such thing as wrong music.”

MacLeod, meanwhile, is telling me about the industry. Part of how he makes a living is by helping clients navigate libraries of samples and find what they need. But the trumpet player interrupts our conversation by getting louder, and even more hilariously emotional. “You can tell that whoever is playing is really trying,” MacLeod says. The player in this sample is probably a musician, he says, but definitely not a trumpet player. “I’ve always been a huge proponent of the sixth-grade band sound. There’s no such thing as wrong music. There’s inappropriate music. But everything’s got a place, and there is a place for that aesthetic.”

But what’s appealing about it?

“I think it’s the struggle. It’s the super human backbone to everything. You can hear the effort. You go to hear a great orchestra, and it doesn’t sound like effort to them. It’s beautiful, they’re great. But to hear the struggle is really appealing.”

For someone whose music is oftentimes in the background, he lets feeling guide him a lot. He also composes based on the the mood he’s in at any given time. The struggling trumpet piece was something he composed on a day when he was feeling happy. Next, he puts on a clip called “Sunflower Dance Party.” It’s synthy, and sounds like something from a peppy 8-bit video game, and there’s a lot of cowbell.

Kevin MacLeod, "Sunflower Dance Party"

“This stuff sells. Give people super happy things.”

But that’s not the mood he was in when he wrote it. “I got up in the morning and I was like, wow. I feel terrible, and awful, and generally sad. And I was like, well, I think I can fix that: I’m just going to write the happiest goddamn music I can possibly come up with. And it worked. I was very, very sad when I wrote this.”

At nearly six minutes long, “Sunflower Dance Party” is one of his lengthier clips. MacLeod says it’s because he didn’t want it to end.

Out in the world, away from his desk, MacLeod is not a casual music listener. I ask him what he listens to normally, and he pauses for a moment. “Mostly classical music. Mahler and Tchaikovsky and those guys. But I don’t really go seeking out too much music. There’s enough of it that happens in the world.” His phone rings, interrupting us; it’s a ridiculously loud ringtone. “You can hear that walking down an avenue,” he says. “I wrote that yesterday.”